The start of a new year is always pretty inspirational. It’s like starting with a blank slate, and you have nothing but good things to put on it!

Some (like me) consider their birthday the mark of a new year, another fresh start for those (like me) who have somehow lost focus or need a reboot.

Last week I attended my first NIGA gathering in Las Vegas. I was speaking on a few marketing topics. I expected I’d make some new friends and shake a few hands. Mostly, I was looking forward to finally seeing dear friends, perhaps even hugging them.

Truthfully, these types of conferences have become business development events for me – less about reuniting and more about outreach and follow-up. What I did not expect was to be inspired.

I’ve always known the casino industry to be resilient, but truthfully, I’ve never witnessed such a spirit like this. It was inspiring.

I get to work with some intelligent marketers that inspire me daily. I often wonder what motivates them. So, I asked them!

Failure Might Be Part of The Process, But Caution Is As Well

Steven Neely is the general manager at Rolling Hills Casino. I once heard him say, “If you are not making some mistakes, you are not trying hard enough.” You’ve probably heard someone say something similar. There are books about failing, both in your personal and work life. There are thousands if not millions of Instagram quotes that draw inspiration from failure.

For Neely, this mindset encouraged innovation. It wasn’t a free pass for doing less. It was about accepting that often we don’t know what the future holds. However, this was the first time I ever heard a casino executive encourage it.

As I updated this collection of motivational thoughts from my friends, I asked if what they told me in 2017 still held for them today.

For Neely, this wasn’t a quick yes or no. The pandemic has changed our view on what we once thought was perhaps an absolute.

“I would say on balance I still stand by this,” says Neely, “but I have had to soften things a little and for a good reason. When the pandemic hit, it forced us to revisit EVERYTHING we do. It also forced us to step back and evaluate what was truly important to us. Suddenly keeping people safe became more important than moving fast and not missing opportunities.”

He adds, “Most importantly, however, the real concern was that if we messed up, people could die! It is one thing to lose revenue due to a mistake being made, but it is completely different when people’s lives are on the line. There was also much information bouncing around regarding what was safe. Who you could believe and ultimately, what needed to be done?”

Neely continued, “What I found, however, was that the same ability to be decisive actually worked in our favor during these times. We were able to sift through a lot of information quickly, identify trends that were developing and get out in front of most of them. We also were able to identify the areas where we truly didn’t know and seek out experts that did, and in some cases, we simply had to make the best decision we could, based on what we did know, but at least we felt comfortable that we had done our best.”

“Another byproduct of this situation was that ‘normal’ decisions suddenly became more difficult to make. Our normal process changed to mirror how we handled the pandemic in areas where it did not need to, almost as if our wiring had been changed. Even now, coming out of the crisis, I still sense a bit of uncertainty in my team that we did not have before.”

Neely continues to work through the various changes his team is facing.

If he had to update his mantra, perhaps it is to “never underestimate the importance of the decisions you are making when people are truly at risk, but also do not allow that process to disrupt how you evaluate your other opportunities. Making mistakes is part of our learning, and without those, you are never fully realizing your opportunities. More importantly, you have to learn to accept the difference between risking business growth and putting people at risk”.

Develop a Habit for Success

Potawatomi Hotel & Casino’s Tom Malloy gets to change hats daily, sometimes hourly. One is his assistant general manager hat, and the other is his CMO hat. So, he pretty much has to motivate everyone on that property. He tells me, “Motivation is what gets you started.  Habit is what keeps you going and then gets you there!” He knows that good marketing habits, i.e., programs, get us to our strategic goals. The habits Tom and his team choose to develop and set into motion set a foundation. He knows that marketing is like running a marathon; it takes more than a spurt of energy (or a flash of an idea). It takes months of training to become fit enough to run a marathon. It takes months of consistency (or habits) for customers to understand your brand as it indeed relates to them.

The Bigger Picture

Cypress Bayou Casino Hotel’s Director of Public Relations and Advertising Richard Picard is a newer friend, but I have found him to be an inspiration to me. He says, “The pandemic makes it difficult to find inspiration, but my “Why,” as Simon Sinek would call it, has not changed. I am passionate about helping tribes realize true economic self-sufficiency through their gaming operations.”

“I’ve always found tribal gaming operations to be very special in their brand purpose.” He adds, “I want to see people grow. I want to see those of us working in Indian Country flourish. I want to see tribes become less dependent upon others.”

In short, his inspiration comes from watching and being a part of growth. “The pandemic really put the gaming industry to the ultimate test. We had to close our doors to protect our team members, guests, and the community,” recalls Picard. “Then we had to navigate a confusing reopening process with guidance that changed each day.”

“We had to flip the traditional casino marketing model on its head completely,” continues Picard. “To top it all off, we had to plan for reopening with a limited capacity which we assumed would negatively affect the bottom line.”

It was a scary time for a casino marketer, but there was an opportunity in the unknown. He says the most important lesson he learned during this entire experience is that “we are all much more resilient than we thought,” he says. “Casino marketers are creative people. We know which buttons to push to make things happen, and most of all, we understand the needs of our owners, guests, teams, and community.”

“We know why people visit us. In fact, we have developed sophisticated models to determine how much they are willing to spend when they do. We are in a unique position to deliver the sense of escapism that our guests crave, and we can do it in a safe environment.”

“It took a great deal of creative thinking to get us where we are today,” concludes Picard. “The lessons learned through navigating the reopening process spawned further creativity in our operations and are now a part of our growth. There is no question that our industry is extremely resilient and that we are responsible community partners. The adaptability of our business is inspiring. The sky is the limit (pending regulatory approval, of course) .”


Decide to Move Forward

When I asked Suzanne Trout how she found inspiration in 2017, she was CMO of Foxwoods Resort Casino. She told me she found her inspiration from Libba Bray’s A Great & Terrible Beauty. “There are no wrong decisions ― only different ones.” Trout says, “This perspective allowed me to take chances and take new opportunities.  Losing the fear and anxiety around making the ‘wrong’ choice is very freeing.  It also can help force action when you really need it.  Sometimes you have to pull up and take a shot.  Don’t get frozen in the decision process.” Understanding there are no wrong decisions can help relieve the pressure of actually making the decision and may allow you to move forward.”

It appears she still lives by this as she has just recently accepted a new role as executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Cordish Gaming.

Improve, Innovate or Disrupt; Don’t Stand Still.

Matt Dodd is the general manager of Elk Valley Casino. He is inspired by change. Boy is he in the right industry!

“What inspires me is creative innovation. I love people with a passion for improving, changing, and sometimes…disrupting,” he shares.

Dodd thinks disruption is the rule currently and that we have to shift our views and even our approach to business. “One of the biggest challenges as we exit the pandemic, in my opinion, is shifting from tactical planning to strategic planning,” he adds. “Some would say that strategic planning is what we always did before, but I would argue that there is a shortage of understanding in the industry of what that even means. Many of the leaders, even senior leaders in our industry, only have a vague understanding of meaningful KPIs and what to do with them!”

How will we innovate for the market we have today and the one we will have tomorrow.

Two Builders; One Common Vision

I once worked for Steve Wynn, credited by many with evolution in Las Vegas and the casino industry. Words such as “visionary” are commonly used in speaking about him. He is well-known across the gaming industry and the globe. He was a significant influence in my evolution as a brand marketer. He taught me how to dig deeper into both my marketing and my skills.

A year or so after my Wynn experience, I met the wonderful Paul Keller. Lesser-known yet still a visionary and an inspiration. Also a builder of extraordinary guest experiences, he found a way to focus his vision to a level everyone could understand and be guided by.

As he designed casinos, hotel rooms, restaurants, and bars, he not only considered the front of the house where the guest was, but the back of the house that can be critical in the delivery of the experience. He would say, “the beer has to be cold, and the wings needed to be hot.” That, along with a smile and good service, would take our restaurants a long way.

He had this uncanny way of taking a design from a beautiful picture to an actual functioning space. He could walk through it, not only in the customer’s shoes but in the employee’s shoes as well. He would always find inspiration in the simplest details and then shared generously with the rest of us.

The Ordinary Inspiration

Isn’t it nice to look back on your day and realize it was that much better because you were inspired by something or someone? We get so caught up in meetings, calls, emails, errands, and obligations that we seldom noticed that little thing that made us realize we could keep going.

A dear friend who transformed her life with a style and grace I envy.

A co-worker who became an advocate for a friend who was not expected to live a long life. She has beaten the odds and has inspired him to do many good things and help others. In the process, he inspired me.

The president of a regional gaming operator who turned a company around – despite a recession, changed the culture to one of empowerment, juggled numerous civic and charitable obligations while still finding the time to tend to the most delicate plants in her beautiful garden. Now, presumably “retired,” she continues her juggling act. Where does she get that energy?

Whether your “new year” is January 1, your birthday, anniversary, or today. I hope you will find inspiration that can become your mantra.

What inspires you?



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